Thursday, 2 November 2017

Thank You for Your Service

I am writing a book, the proposal began. I am looking to hire an artist to create an original colored drawing of my proposed book cover. I am willing to negotiate a reasonable fee. If my book is published, the artist would be appropriately recognized in the acknowledgments. If anyone is interested or knows of a "starving artist" that would be interested in the job…

He concludes with a name and telephone number. For the sake of convenience, I'll identify him as Ludovico Sforza after the selfsame Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo da Vinci - the man who commissioned Leonardo's Last Supper. Ludovico Sforza had posted the request on Next Door, a social media site, where it was spotted by my wife's aunt, who immediately thought of me seeing as how I'm artistic and all.

I wrestle with my conscience, knowing for certain that undertaking such work will doubtless be arseache from beginning to end, whilst trying hard to resist my own inherent cynicism, and to keep from thinking of the aforementioned cynicism as simply realism based on direct experience. Idiocy wins out, so I give the guy a call.

'Who is this?' he asks. He sounds alarmed.

'I've heard you need a cover for your book.'

'How did you get this number?'

'You put out a request on Next Door, and that's why I'm calling.'

The penny drops.

'I guess you must be from Alabama,' he says.

'I'm from England.'

'I know,' he says, and I realise it was a joke.

'If you want to meet to discuss this,' I begin, then remember that I have no idea where he lives. 'Do you drive? Only I don't.'

'That's no problem. If you give me an address I'll come to you. I'm only a little way out.'

'Okay then, although I'm not too sure about next week. Maybe an evening would be better. Except I'm not free on Sunday.'

'Well, Saturday…'

'I think Saturday is out too. Maybe Sunday evening or something.'

'I'll be at church all day Sunday, so that doesn't work for me.'

An alarm bell goes off but I manage to ignore it. 'I meant during the evening.'

'Yes, that would be fine. You see, I'll be at church all day, but I will be free in the evening. I'm retired.'

The alarm bell continues as a warning light additionally flashes an amber alert. Ludovico Sforza is not only a retired gentleman who attends church, but one who attends church all day, one who remains - presumably out of choice - at a church beyond the reasonable time limit during which anything useful or healthy might be communicated. I don't have anything against the religious, and there are at least a couple of people I like who might be described as such, and generally I dislike the crusading atheist more than I dislike your average person of faith, but - you know…

He arrives at seven with a folder the size of a breeze block. This is his novel. 'I have fifteen chapters,' he explains. 'At the moment I'm writing one a month, and I'm presently on the thirteenth, so I estimate it should be ready around November.'

He sits. He doesn't require tea or coffee. He is fine. He shows me a cover he's mocked up. 'I'm no artist. I can't even manage stick figures, but this should give you some idea. The novel is called Earth in Flames.'

The image shows the globe, apparently ablaze, with two figures inset, the head and shoulders of a man and woman locked in a kiss. The man is made of fire, and the woman of ice.


Ludovico shows me a map of the world as it will be in his dystopian science-fiction novel sixty-seven years hence. The world will be divided among three superpowers, with Europe and Africa belonging to the Islamic Caliphate. I remind myself that he hasn't yet said anything annoying, only hinted at the potential for his doing so at some point soon.

'I was a Navy SEAL,' he explains, accounting for his retirement and at least some of the experience which has inspired Earth in Flames. 'This is the tale of a military man, a fighter. He's the male character. He's a very angry figure and he's hunting this woman. His mission is to find this woman and he chases her across the globe. You see, she is represented by the ice character on the cover. She is very devout, humble. She's a deeply spiritual person and very beautiful, maybe Hispanic looking - olive skin. The world is mostly dominated by an all-powerful secular state and Christianity is outlawed.'

He pauses, allowing time for the sheer enormity of this last one to sink in, as unfortunately it does.

I remind myself that he hasn't yet given any indication of other sympathies I tend to associate with people who believe Christian values to be under attack, if that is what he believes. We talk about the cover. He shows me a variant idea also knocked up on the computer, same thing but the male figure is more obviously militaristic and carries an assault rifle.

'I think I prefer the fire and ice version,' I say, trying to be diplomatic. 'I mean you don't want it to look like one of those,' - I'm struggling to think of a term for military wank written by soldiers, Bravo Two Zero and that sort of thing. 'I mean I don't get the impression it's a military book.'

'Oh but it is. The atheist character is a navy SEAL.'

'I mean, it's not just that.'

'Well, no.'

'The thing is that these fire and ice characters, I mean it's an allegory. You don't have anyone in your novel with mutant superpowers like the Human Torch or Iceman. I think it might be better if I were to take that angle but suggest the fire and ice thing with how they are lit, so that it's not quite so obvious.'

So that it doesn't look like an issue of The Watchtower, I think.

We talk about the writing, seeing as I've had a novel published by someone other than myself, and which has been purchased and read by people I've never met. He describes the pain of writing a single paragraph, of re-reading it the next day and having to change everything. I'm familiar with the pain, but it was a long time ago, and I tell him that we've all been there. I don't tell him I made it past that stage about ten years prior to writing the novel which I've had published because it will sound like I'm boasting.

'If I like what you've done and I'm able to use it,' he says, 'I'll give you a credit at the beginning of the book, providing we can agree on a price.'

I couldn't really give a shit about the heights of fame and international recognition to which I will soar as cover artist of Earth in Flames, particularly given that its author isn't even sure how he's going to publish the thing.

'How does fifty dollars sound?' I understand the going rate for a book cover to be about four-hundred but fuck it, I'm trying to help the poor cunt out here, and it's all practice, and maybe I'll end up painting something of which I can be proud.

'Fifty dollars sounds very fair,' he agrees.

He leaves, and I notice after the fact that he told me he'd been a Navy SEAL more than twice, maybe four or five times. I wonder if he expected either myself or my wife to say thank you for your service as is the custom over here. It has become a mantra. Some guy on a forum begins a sentence with when I was in the military and the next ten responses will begin thank you for your service. Terminal patriotism sufferers salute so hard as to concuss themselves whilst screaming thank you for your service at the faintest whiff of khaki.

I have endless respect for anyone who places themselves in danger for the greater good, but thank you for your service seems like sentiment beyond reason in many cases. So far as I'm aware, military personnel are paid a wage for their service and their families are often provided housing, so I like to know what an individual's service actually was before I fall at their feet in tears screaming my undying devotion. If your service was stacking naked bodies for totes awesome LULZ at Abu Ghraib or delivering a liquid pork enema to some conspicuously Islamic detainee, then I reserve my right to remain unimpressed; and I'm going to need something a bit more specific than preserving freedom before I go all weak at the knees, which doubtless makes me a liberal faggot to those who love America so hard that they want to turn it into Soviet Russia with better weather. I think of the state my grandfather was in following the second world war, having served with the Chindits in Burma, fighting the Japanese in the jungle. About a third of them made it back alive. I don't know whether idiots screaming thank you for your service really would have been much use to him.

I leave it a week, then paint the couple in close up. I don't usually bother with preliminary studies, but I want to get this right. I scan the study and send it to Ludovico Sforza attached to an email.

I've painted a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on, although the colours will require a little work. I thought you might like to see it, so it is attached to this email.

He responds.

I appreciate the artistry but the characters have nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed. I like what you did, but do not want typical male and female characters on the book cover.

It's the as we discussed which bothers me. I recall the discussion fairly well, particularly the detail in which I proposed that characters literally composed of fire and ice will look ridiculous. I get the feeling that further progress will prove frustrating as my client continues to find fault with my interpretative ability because I've painted a cover rather than just taken a telepathic photograph of the image he has inside his head. It's tough because telling an otherwise amiable person to fuck off does not come naturally to me, but eventually I get the email written.

After some consideration, I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline this job because I don't think I can paint what you want me to paint, so you might do better to keep looking until you find someone who can. The study I sent was, as described, a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on because, however the characters end up, they will need to be lit, and their faces will be of certain shapes. To suggest that it has nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed in turn suggests that regrettably we're not on the same page here.

It's done, so I no longer have to worry about the possibility of #alllivesmatter the novel, or a future with gay marriage and women's rights described as a dystopia, and it's as though a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I tell myself that I will know next time, although honestly, I knew all along this time, and still it made no difference.

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